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Mild temperatures in March – good or bad news for the growing season?

Does a mild winter, a record-shattering touch of summer in mid-March, and persistent drought in most corners of the country bode ill for Wisconsin’s upcoming growing season? Taking stock of the official start of spring, March 21, finds little sure evidence to know either way it seems according to Bill Bland, University of Wisconsin-Extension agricultural weather specialist.

The U.S. Drought Monitor updated March 13 shows the mild drought (rated D0 on its scale) in NW Wisconsin expanding slightly south and eastward from where it was two weeks ago. Just across the Minnesota border, however, areas of moderate and severe drought (D1 and D2) persist.

“While a look over the past 18 months reveals Wisconsin precipitation statewide as normal, the most recent 6 months have left the NW portions of the state 2-4 inches short of what’s expected,” Bland noted. “For the NW Climate/Crop District only 10 percent of years yield this little precipitation-hence the emergence of mild drought. This part of Wisconsin has too much recent experience with dry summers to be comfortable with how this year is evolving. Just across the border in Minnesota climate districts are experiencing the driest winter on record.”

Do longer-range outlooks for temperature and precipitation provide any clues to the upcoming summer? The mid-March updates for summer (June-July-August) only reveal that forecasters have no grounds to make a prediction other than luck of the draw.

“The tools that forecasters can use in other parts of the country to look ahead just don’t work here in Wisconsin, for better or for worse,” said Bland.

For example, weakening of the La Nina conditions in the Pacific Ocean bode well for easing of the drought in Texas. But such far-away changes in sea temperatures do not reliably suggest what we can expect in Wisconsin.

The Drought Outlook updated March 15 shows neither easing nor intensification of the situation in NW Wisconsin. It does expect improvement in the Minnesota drought through April and May, based largely on the expectation that things tend to return to more normal conditions over time.

With record-shattering warm temperatures in March, the 2012 spring and summer seems to be getting off to an extraordinary start.

“Vegetation will be coming alive and there is plentiful energy for evaporation from the landscape. Let’s hope that rainfalls keep up,” Bland said.